Conservative megadonors such as Charles Koch and the late David Koch, as well as Crossroads GPS, pioneered this practice, but now Politico reports that a group backing liberal causes, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, spent $141 million on more than 100 left-leaning issues during the 2018 midterm election cycle. This matches some of the commanding heights of the conservative groups in years past.
The Sixteen Thirty Fund is a social welfare group under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code and, as such, does not have to reveal its donors to the public, in contrast to political action committees that report to the Federal Election Commission, including the super PACs that are independent of candidates. The social welfare groups are permitted to engage in some politics; the logic was that groups such as renters’ associations or firefighters could be allowed to engage in politicking while not giving up their central social welfare purpose. But what’s happened in recent years is that this loophole has been hijacked by big campaign donors who want to have impact but hide their identity. According to the Politico report, a single donor to the Sixteen Thirty Fund gave $51.7 million, a second donor gave $26.7 million, and a third donated $10 million.
Who are these donors? The public will not find out. A good question is whether they are individual donors or whether this is part of a larger network of dark money sloshing about in politics. The fund distributed cash to causes such as television ads opposing the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, as well as ads that focused on issues such as health care and the economy. At least indirectly, the fund’s spending helped Democrats take back the House. The fund also poured money into other nonprofit groups active in state politics.
Pity the voters, bombarded with social media posts, news accounts and advertising from all kinds of faceless and unaccountable sources. It is time for Congress to change the law and force social welfare groups to identify their donors in full. Society will be better for it and voters less confused and misled.